Feb 162009

Tonight at the dinner table I was informed that Diether Haenicke, president emeritus of Western Michigan University, has died. I am glad to be alone now with the news, behind a closed door where the others can’t see me.

He was one of the best public university presidents, ever — certainly the best one I’ve known of. He never stopped being a professor and a man of learning when he became an administrator. I don’t work at his university, but Haenicke’s influence has benefited us all.

We don’t live in Kalamazoo, but for a few years I picked up a copy of the Kalamazoo Gazette once a week — on the day his column was published. I now just went to my bookshelf and took down his published collection of columns, “Wednesdays with Diether,” so I can re-read it.

Here is the opening paragraph of an article titled, “Revisiting books of youth may lead to a rediscovery of self.”

One of the great luxuries which I currently enjoy is having time to read for pleasure. For over twenty-five years, I held academic positions which forced me, day in and day out, to peruse financial statements, office memos, funding requests, general office correspondence, or accreditation reports. Although their respective authors undoubtedly put great effort into these communications to the president, none remain memorable or trigger the wish to re-read them. These days I read exclusively what I want to read, not what I must read, and the treasure trove of history, biography, poetry, and novels again lies open before me.

In “Musings on bans, censorship, and biased rationale,” he gave twenty examples of things that people requested to have banned on his campus. He ended with:

Finally, for good measure, my all time favorites:

19. Do away with the outdoor sculptures on campus. They are so abstract, no rational being can figure out what they represent. This is not art.

20. Do away with the Bronco sculpture in front of Athletics. It is so representational, everyone can see immediately what it is. This is not art.

If one ponders the list, one will no doubt find one or more items that meet one’s own biases. But who would still want to be on our beautiful campus and in our intellectually rich university if all the above requests had been granted? Certainly not I.

Immediately following that article in the book is one titled, “A tenured radical visits Kalamazoo.” It was Bill Ayers. Haenicke responded to Ayers’ self-justification:

I beg to differ. While I strongly support political protest and free speech, I fail to see any “merit” in throwing bombs, no matter how itsy-bitsy they are. And the argument that America’s alleged violence abroad deserves to be countered with bombing federal buildings sounds too much like the hollow justifications of our radical Muslim attackers.

And just now I found the most memorable paragraph in all of his articles. I’m not sure why it was so hard to find. Perhaps it’s because I couldn’t make myself just scan titles and paragraphs — I had to stop and re-read. But my copy has an orange sticky-note at the location of this one, so it shouldn’t have been hard to miss. It’s in an article titled, “Indoctrination is a crime against children.”

I was deeply affected. Just a few weeks earlier, I had come across a class photo taken in my elementary school in Germany in 1941. My first grade teacher smiles benevolently at her forty little charges, all of them with soft, beautiful children’s faces. I took a long look at myself, a nice, pleasant looking little boy sitting in the front row right under the big photograph of a stern, watchful Adolf Hitler on the wall above me. The classmate behind me, slightly mentally retarded, later unexpectedly died of pneumonia. Actually, he had been murdered through the euthanasia program for the ‘eradication of unworthy life.’ What a class photo!

I never met Dr. Haenicke. I once sent him an e-mail, and he responded. He had written about his trepidation at driving through Alabama to get back to Michigan, which matched some of my feelings about preparing a bicycle ride to Alabama.

Only once did I see him in person. A few years ago he was at the opening of a history exhibit at the WMU library, milling around with the other attendees. It seemed that he was an accessible enough person that I could have walked up and introduced myself, but I didn’t know of anything worthwhile to say to contribute to his evening. He has had much to say to us, though.

Here is the Kalamazoo Gazette news article about his death.